By Paul Hampton
The voices of African workers have been missing from the recent media frenzy about Africa. Even on the left the general picture of Africans is of passive victims of disease and malnutrition in need of charity.
This conception is completely wrong. The political and economic situation for African workers is generally very difficult, but their militancy and organisation is an inspiration that deserves our solidarity.
And the working class in Africa is no privileged caste but the crucial agent of progress on the continent: both for reducing poverty, for improving democratic rights and fighting for socialism.
According to ILO figures, at the beginning of this century there were over 342,000,000 “economically active” people in Africa, representing 43% of the population. Just over half (51%) of all men and just over a third (35%) of all women were economically active.
Almost two-third of those in work are in agriculture, 63% of the labour force. A much smaller number work in industry (11%) — about half of them in manufacturing. And around a quarter of the labour force work in services.
One of the most significant divisions faced by the African working class is the split between formal and informal sectors. According to the African Labour Researchers’ Network, the size of the formal sector varies enormously across the continent.
For example in South Africa, over seven million workers — almost two-thirds (64%) — are employed in the formal sector. In Namibia half the workforce, or 270,000 workers are in the formal sector. However only 150,000 workers (14%) in Ghana and less than 400,000 workers (11%) in Zambia are employed in the formal sector.
Unemployment is also high — in Zimbabwe as high as 80% but generally across the continent over 20%. The situation for women workers is worst of all in terms of wages, job security and domestic work.
The situation has been compounded over the last twenty years by neoliberal structural adjustment programmes like privatisation that have decimated whole industries, such as mining in Zambia.
The result of these conditions is plain: poverty. A recent report by Cape Town University calculated that poverty in sub-Saharan Africa has doubled over the past 20 years, from 164 million to 316 million people — around half the population.
In almost every African country there are restrictions on trade union activity, laws against strike action and union recognition, interference in union elections and state-sponsored bogus unions.
According to the ICFTU international union confederation, in 2003, 25 African trade unionists were killed, 218 injured, beaten or tortured, 903 arrested and 6,556 dismissed from their jobs.
Despite state repression and poor economic conditions, labour movements exist and fight. The ICFTU has 12 million members in affiliated unions in Africa and estimates that there are 25 million unionised workers in 45 African countries, representing a powerful agency for change.
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) is probably the largest union organisation, with around four million members representing 33% of employed workers. The NLC was twice disbanded by the military government (in 1988 and 1994), but last year it organised three general strikes.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) represents around 40% of workers in the formal sector. COSATU membership grew from 1.3m in 1994 to 1.7m in 2003 and has grown 350% since it was launched in 1985. There are nearly two million workers in other South African trade union federations.
The Trade Union Congress in Ghana, the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions also represent significant sections of workers in the formal sector.
One argument that is sometimes heard, most vocally from academics and employers, is that unionised workers in the formal sector constitute a “labour aristocracy”.
Clearly organised workers in more secure jobs are likely to have better pay and conditions — that’s true of workers across the world and stems not just from “market forces” but from organisation and struggle.
But even in South Africa, the differences are not so great as to constitute a privileged caste. According to Ravi Naidoo from the NALEDI labour research organisation, formal sector jobs in mining, agriculture and manufacturing South Africa have fallen since the end of apartheid in 1994. Unemployment rose from 16% in 1995 to 30% in 2002. Even the public sector experienced job cuts.
Naidoo says the average wage of black workers indicate the differences are not great. A unionised male worker in the retail sector earns R1,937 (£120) per month whereas a non-unionised male worker earns R1,225 per month (£75). The difference is significant, but the real division is with management that earn ten, and sometimes a hundred times more.
Largely due to the massive job losses, average black incomes fell by 16% between 1995 and 2000. Average white incomes have increased by 16% over that same period. For the working class, the labour share of national income declined from 57% in 1990 to 51% in 2001. By contrast, South African capital saw its profit share grow.
Trade unionists in Africa are generally mindful of the growth of the informal sector and have attempted to organise workers in it. Clearly workers in the informal sector want to improve their wages and conditions. But better off and better organised workers have in interest in levelling up the conditions of their sisters and brothers in the informal sector, rather than face a competitive race to the bottom with other workers.
Unions, campaigning for decent work, for better pay and working conditions, for democracy and social justice, are pivotal to any strategy that helps African workers to help themselves.
Far from being passive victims of poverty, African workers and their unions have struggled to improve their lives.
The picture is well summed up by Blair and Geldof’s much-touted Commission for Africa report, which devotes just one paragraph in its 460 pages to trade unions in Africa.
African workers are savagely exploited. Half of all African people live on less than a dollar a day. And the situation has worsened enormously over the last twenty years, as structural adjustment, privatisation and austerity have been imposed by governments, often at the behest of the IMF.
However, trade unions continue to organise and fight to improve conditions for their members.